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Can the back-to-back AL Central champs repeat in 2011?
Every year, the pattern seems to repeat itself. The Twins are kings of the American League Central and postseason pawns. Their run of six division titles in nine years is now overshadowed by a baffling streak: 12 consecutive postseason losses, the second-longest such streak in major league history. The Red Sox hold the record, with 13 straight postseason losses from 1986 to 1995, starting with the Bill Buckner game. Now, 20 years since their last World Series title, the Twins are out to prove they aren’t cursed, especially against the Yankees, who have swept them from the past two postseasons. The Twins have plenty of talent, assuming Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau can stay healthy. But like many teams, they have big questions, starting with their pitching.
Another quick playoff exit in 2010 left Twins fans clamoring for a true ace, something the team hasn’t had since it traded Johan Santana to the Mets three years ago. Francisco Liriano, 27, offers the best hope. After an abysmal 2009, he did everything the Twins could have asked in 2010 — except hold onto a sixth-inning lead in Game 1 of the Division Series. The Twins hope Liriano (14–10, 3.62 ERA), fellow lefthander Brian Duensing (10–3, 2.62) and righty Carl Pavano (18–11, 3.75) can repeat last year’s success, but they need Scott Baker (12–9, 4.49) and Nick Blackburn (10–12, 5.42). Pavano tested the free agent waters at season’s end but re-signed with the Twins in January. With Baker and Blackburn each coming off arthroscopic elbow surgery, Kevin Slowey, a 13-game winner last season, and 2009 first-round draft pick Kyle Gibson need to be ready to move into the rotation.
When Joe Nathan blew out his right elbow last March, the Twins didn’t let it stop them. That said a lot about their other relievers and management’s ability to adjust under the looser budget restrictions at Target Field. Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes became key in-season additions, as the payroll climbed above $100 million for the first time in franchise history. Nathan, a four-time All-Star, is optimistic he’ll be good as new after recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he turned 36 in November. One year from free agency, Capps gives the Twins a strong fallback option if Nathan isn’t ready to reclaim the closer’s job. The Twins knew they’d have bullpen turnover, as Fuentes, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch all became free agents. They’ll enter spring training with several relief jobs up for grabs.
Once the Twins realized how difficult it was to hit home runs at Target Field, they knew they had to get faster on the basepaths. Last year, they tried a veteran middle-infield tandem of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, but both were jettisoned. In a surprise move, the Twins won the negotiating rights for Japanese shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka with a $5.3 million bid to the Chiba Lotte Marines, and signed him to a three-year, $9.25 million contract with a club option for 2014. Nishioka, 26, batted .346 last year to win the Japanese Pacific League batting title. He averaged 28 stolen bases over the past six years in Japan. The Twins haven’t given up hope that Alexi Casilla can become an everyday player. He flamed out after being named the team’s Opening Day second baseman in 2009 but impressed the coaching staff last year with his work ethic off the bench. Nishioka and Casilla are both speedy switch-hitters who can play shortstop and second base. It’s uncertain who will play where, but it should be interesting to see how they complement each other.
When you’re getting swept each postseason, it’s tough for one player to make a difference, but the Twins sure wish Morneau had been healthy the past two Octobers. Morneau, 29, missed the final month of the 2009 season with a stress fracture in his lower back, and last year, he suffered a season-ending concussion on July 7. The four-time All-Star’s slow recovery left concerns that he might never be the same, but Morneau resumed his workouts in November and said “there’s not a doubt” in his mind that he’d be ready for spring training. Danny Valencia should be champing at the bit, too. Promoted from Class-AAA Rochester in June, he led all American League rookies in batting average (.311), doubles (16) and RBIs (37) after the All-Star break. Third base has been a revolving door since Corey Koskie departed as a free agent after 2004, but Valencia appears to be a long-term solution.
While several Twins hitters went backward in 2010, left fielder Delmon Young made major strides forward. After driving home 69 and 60 runs his first two seasons in Minnesota, Young led the team with 112 RBIs. He also hit a career-high 21 homers and added 46 doubles, coming within one double of Morneau’s club record. Leadoff man Denard Span needs to rebound after seeing his on-base percentage drop from .392 to .331 the past two years. Right fielder Michael Cuddyer is entering his free agent walk year. He hit 14 home runs last year after smashing a career-high 32 in 2009 but proved invaluable again by making a seamless transition to first base with Morneau injured.
Mauer gets a fresh start after a disappointing season by his standards. He faced impossibly high expectations after winning 2009 AL MVP honors and signing an eight-year, $184 million contract in spring training. As always, the key for Mauer is staying healthy. He had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee again in December after being banged up all season. A three-time batting champion, Mauer batted .293 before the All-Star break and .373 after the break. After hitting a career-high 28 home runs in 2009, Mauer hit just nine homers, including one at Target Field. There is no talk of the Twins having Mauer switch positions. He turns 28 on April 19 and hopes to continue catching for several years. The Twins traded top catching prospect Wilson Ramos to Washington for Capps last year, so if Mauer is injured again, they’ll be leaning on backup Drew Butera or minor league signees Steve Holm and Rene Rivera.
Jason Kubel has shown he’s capable of playing either corner outfield spot, but he serves as the DH when the rest of the lineup is healthy. Target Field seemed to fluster Kubel as much as any Twins hitter after his breakout performance in 2009, when he batted .300 with 28 home runs and 103 RBIs. His OPS slipped from .908 to .750, even though he got consistent playing time, surpassing 500 at-bats for the second straight season. Jim Thome gave the Twins a tremendous boost last January, when he signed on for a bench role. With Morneau injured, Thome wound up leading the team with 25 home runs and posting a 1.039 OPS. He returns for what will likely be his final season.
Ron Gardenhire finally received AL Manager of the Year honors last year after a record five runner-up finishes. The Twins rewarded him with a two-year extension that keeps him under contract through at least 2013. Gardenhire’s coaches also received new two-year deals. The only change was an internal swap. Bench coach Steve Liddle moves to the third base box, and Scott Ullger moves to the bench. General manager Bill Smith also had a good 2010. After the new year, he added Thome, Hudson, Capps and Fuentes, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Yankees.
The Twins are thriving as an organization by feasting on a weaker division. They went 94–68 last year, but half their victories came against the AL Central, and once again, they were exposed in the postseason. All the pieces are there to not only snap the postseason losing streak but also make a deep run into October. Yes, there are a lot of ifs, but if Liriano continues to mature into an ace, if Nathan rediscovers his pre-Tommy John form, if their middle-infield experiment works, if Mauer stays healthy, and if they can finally get a full season from Morneau — they might even welcome a postseason rematch with the Yankees.